The few surviving members of a species of good-looking aliens have taken refuge on Earth following the extinction of their home world at the hands of a rival, but far uglier, group of aliens. These intergalactic refugees want little more than to blend in with our society, but, unfortunately for them, the ugly aliens are on their scent and eager to reduce their population one by one. Enter John (Alex Pettyfer), handsome alien number four. John's trying to live a normal life, spending his nights with his mentor refugee, Henri (Timothy Olyphant), and his days attending public high school. Then one day things get hairy when John hits super-power puberty, which coincidentally is right when his number comes up on the ugly aliens' chopping block.
Make no bones about it, 'I Am Number Four' is the kind of movie that a thirteen-year old can fall in love with, but that most adults will, let's be honest, probably pass right by. That's not exactly a knock on the film, though. After all, teenagers are the exact market for young adult sci-fantasy like this. They can safely see themselves in the broad themes of loneliness and trying to discover what makes themselves special, blissfully oblivious to the fact that D.J. Caruso's film is filled with genre archetypes that have been well-mined for decades.
The names and scenarios may have been changed to protect the borrowed templates, but if you've been exposed to any YA fiction in recent years, be it 'Percy Jackson,' 'Cirque du Freak,' 'Under the Mountain,' 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' or 'Smallville,' then you'll be instantly familiar with everything in 'I Am Number Four.' But thanks to an affable cast, a brisk script and a go-big-or-go-home finale, the familiarity is less a distracting pain and more a dull throb you can learn to live with.
Familiar though the dynamics may be, they at least work well enough. For every two things that are run of the mill, there's at least one element that sparks all its own. For example, it's not hard to buy John's interest in Sarah (Dianna Agron) or his fraternal relationship to the seasoned veteran Henri, but it's his newfound friendship with fellow outcast Sam (Callum McAuliffe) that keeps things lively. His special alien powers may not be highly original or even all that well thought-out, but there is an evolution to their sparse use that does pay off.
What either alien race is capable of is never firmly defined, which results in an obvious "comic book origins" vibe as John discovers his new life. And while that probably works great in the series of novels that 'I Am Number Four' is adapted from, unfortunately the sizable gaps in established rules and back-story make the movie feel more like an extended TV pilot than a complete experience. A fun, high-end TV pilot that may leave one intrigued enough to see the continued adventures of handsome aliens versus ugly aliens, yes, but a trial episode all the same. No surprise there, either, considering 'Smallville's' Alfred Gough and Miles Millar and 'Buffy's' Marti Noxon wrote the screenplay.
'I Am Number Four' is a movie, not a television show, and so it must suffer the burden of standing on its own until the box office actually justifies a sequel. And while the flick certainly doesn't fall over while you're watching it, that's only because there's not a whole lot of weight to support in the first place. The villains float in and out of the picture instead of making their presence felt and feared, which is a particular shame since the lead baddie is the always reliable Kevin Durand. Any substantial scenes involving his character must have been excised prior to shooting or left on the cutting room floor to save time, because as generic as the story often is, it's hard to believe that its villain was originally realized this poorly.
Of course the movie isn't called 'I Am Number Four's Villain,' so Durand's sidelining isn't a total disaster, but the old axiom does hold true: A story is only as good as its villain and 'I Am Number Four's' villain it is yet another of the film's many glazed-over elements. Everything is at least satisfactory, but the script's lack of ambition is not only noticeable, but infectious. Once acclimated to the movie's lazy ways, it's easy to be impressed by a few moments of inspiration. If you're a teenager, a few good moments is all it might take to blind you from the tired template being used here. But if you're an adult, a good cast and a slick final battle just aren't enough to overcome an overwhelming sense of cinematic deja vu.